MPs Hear about Denmark’s Organic Success

MPs Hear about Denmark’s Organic Success

Organic farmers, business leaders, experts and advocates spent yesterday morning in Parliament at an event organised by the Organic Trade Board and hosted by Neil Parish MP - the chair of the influential Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee.

Taking place half way through Organic September and attended by MPs from all parties, one highlight was undoubtedly an inspiring and challenging presentation from Paul Holmbeck, MD of Organic Denmark, where organic products account for the largest part of all sales in the country.

So, why do Danes consume three times more organic food than Brits? Turns out it has less to do with the consumer than it has to do with policy makers and the ability of the organic sector itself to mobilise.

The main message from Paul was that policy works; that’s the Danish experience and they’re proud of it. There are eight political parties in Denmark and they all support organic farming, even if for slightly different reasons.

Over many years now, all parties, when in Government, have driven organic policy making. This has resulted in more economic activity and more jobs, as well as new solutions to challenges, from climate change and water quality to farm animal welfare and local jobs.  

There’s certainly a sense of healthy competition among fellow European nations. Denmark has the highest market share of organic in retail supermarkets and whilst they admit that Switzerland has the highest per capita spend on organic, they say this is because everything is much more expensive there.

What’s encouraging for the UK is that the success of organic in Denmark is largely due to the fact that there has been a determination to design policies to help grow the organic sector, coupled with political leadership.

Having said that, there are other factors which are different. One reason for the growth in the Danish organic sector is their single national organic label. Moreover, it’s a government-backed label, and certification and inspection is done by the government, too. This leaves Organic Denmark, the sector body, to get on with promotion. 8 out of 10 Danes have confidence in the label and 98% percent of Danes recognise it as an important part of the food chain. Industry is thriving as a result, with many economic and employment benefits following from that success, as well as the environmental ones, of course. It’s a government/industry partnership that really works. That structure is very different from the UK and unlikely to change.

The Danish Government also takes a stronger role when it comes to large scale and public kitchens in schools, hospitals, care homes and elsewhere.

There’s a Danish government label guaranteeing Bronze, Silver or Gold - not so different from the Soil Association’s standard for catering, Food for Life Served Here, although with staggeringly greater proportions of organic at all levels: Bronze is 30-60% of organic raw materials, Silver is 60-90% and Gold is a whopping 90-100%. Almost all public kitchens now serve 60% organic. When milestones are reached, people really celebrate the success, which creates a real sense of pride and helps to motivate others to join in.

Organic is absolutely mainstream and still growing fast. Organic eggs have a larger market share than caged eggs. Many shops don’t even put conventional, non-organic baby food on the shelves. The majority of Danes buy organic food every week, with 80% of the population overall buying organic. Denmark really is reaching a tipping point.

However, before everyone got too excited, Paul reminded attendants that this doesn’t happen by itself and that policy has been an absolute key driver.

He went on to say that another big difference between the UK and Denmark is that organic food and farming has been used by the Government as a tool in its growth and green policies, and those policies have been both ‘push and pull’, addressing demand as well as supply.

“It just won’t happen without some sort of state capacity and leadership at a very high level in Government, Paul said and he explained how people in ministries work together to develop very targeted policy approaches as a result.

Whilst that includes payments to organic farmers and those in the process of converting, many policy recommendations didn’t cost anything and often organic was found as part of other policies,for example: the national plan, the green growth plan and the national rural development programme all use organic farming.

A lot of effort is also being devoted to developing organic at every link in the production chain, from ‘conversion checks’ for farmers considering going organic to training and bringing in top chefs and strategic support for collaboration with retailers. Why? Because the organic sector has convinced Danish politicians that the organic farming and food movement creates major environmental benefits in rural areas more than any other sector and has been able to back this up with facts. Also, this is a green policy in rural areas that creates businesses and employment.

Organic is seen as one big success story and a very visible one, too. This is key to consumer trust, as well as political support.   

There are lots of lessons to be learned for the organic sector here in the UK, as well as a reminder about the fundamental importance of getting politicians and policy makers - as well as consumers - out onto organic farms to see for themselves what the hype is all about.  

Right now, in the UK Parliament, the truth is that organic farming is barely on the radar of most MPs and it’s certainly not among their top priorities.

With the Agriculture Bill on the horizon, the coming months provide a historic opportunity for us all to change that, and to help the organic sector develop and grow. One of Paul’s final comments is worthy of a conclusion for those of us determined to keep the organic profile high on the agenda, newly inspired from the stories of success of Organic Denmark:

“Ask not what politicians can do for organic, but what organic farming and food can do for them”.